First District Rules Legal Malpractice Claim Time-Barred; Reiterates Key Timeliness Principles

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by Matthew J. Singer, Attorney, Novack and Macey LLP

Matthew J. Singer - Novack and Macey - Sept 2014 hi res
Matthew J. Singer

In a recent decision, Lamet v. Levin, 2015 IL App (1st) 143105, the First District Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a time-barred legal malpractice claim.  In the course of rejecting plaintiff’s arguments, the court emphasized several significant hurdles for legal-malpractice plaintiffs seeking to recover for their lawyers’ conduct in the distant past.

Factual Background:  In 1994, Plaintiff Client (himself a lawyer) hired Defendant Attorney to represent him in a lawsuit.  In that suit, Client’s landlord claimed that Client owed it $34,000 in unpaid rent.  Attorney raised defenses and counterclaims on Client’s behalf based on two untrue factual allegations.  First, Attorney asserted that the rented space was around 2000 square feet, when in reality it was closer to 3000.  Second, Attorney claimed incorrectly that another tenant was being billed for the same space.  The suit was eventually dismissed for want of prosecution.

In 2002, the landlord refiled the action against Client, this time seeking $50,000 in damages.  Attorney relied on the same erroneous defenses he had pursued in the earlier action.

After the case dragged on for nearly a decade, Client consulted with additional attorneys in 2011.  These attorneys informed Client that Attorney’s assertions were indefensible and that Client had no legitimate defense to the suit.  Client ended up settling with the landlord for $150,000.  Client then sued Attorney in 2011 for legal malpractice, alleging that he was injured by Attorney’s pursuit of frivolous defenses.

Statute of Repose:  The First District held that Client’s legal malpractice claim was barred by Illinois’ six-year statute of repose.  735 ILCS 5/13-214.3(c).  Client argued that the statute of repose did not begin running as long as Attorney continued to pursue the unsupported defenses he had first put forward in 1994.  The court rejected this argument, concluding that Client’s negligence claim was, at its heart, based on Attorney’s failure to recognize and advise Client — in 1994 — that Client had no bona fide defenses.  Although Attorney continued to pursue these faulty defenses for more than a decade, that was irrelevant to determining when the statute of repose was triggered.  Accordingly, the statute of repose began running in 1994 and had long since expired when Client filed suit in 2011.

Statute of Limitations:  Apart from the fact that the statute of repose barred Client’s claims, the First District also held that Client’s claim relating to Attorney’s unfounded square-footage defense was time-barred.  In 1994, Client hired an architect to measure the square-footage of the office, which was over 2,700 square feet.  Based on the architect’s measurements, Client was on notice that the office was much larger than 2,000 square feet, contrary to Attorney’s assertions in the litigation against the landlord.  Because Client knew or should have known in 1994 that Attorney’s square-footage defense was factually unsupported, the two-year statute of limitations for legal malpractice, 735 ILCS 5/13-214.3(b), started running almost two decades before Client filed suit.

Fraudulent Concealment:  Finally, the First District rejected Client’s argument that Attorney “fraudulently concealed” his legal malpractice claim by failing to inform Client of his alleged malpractice.  Although Client did not allege any action by Attorney to conceal a cause of action, he argued that Attorney, as a fiduciary, had an affirmative duty to inform him of a potential malpractice claim.  The court squarely rejected this argument, explaining that “[t]his court has rejected the notion that a lawyer has an affirmative obligation to advise a client of the grounds to sue him for legal malpractice.”  Thus, there was no fraudulent concealment — and no tolling of the statute of repose or limitations — so Client’s claim was time-barred.

In sum, although Lamet is hardly a groundbreaking decision, it serves as a helpful reminder of key principles governing timeliness of legal malpractice claims.

(This is for informational purposes and is not legal advice.)

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